French Open 2015: Rafael Nadal sharp as title defense begins

    (CNN)With Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams on the schedule, day three on center court at the French Open didn't lack in star quality.

    Nadal is the nine-time French Open champion and arguably the best ever clay court player; Djokovic is the dominant world No. 1 and carried a 35-2 record into Roland Garros this year; while a title for women's No. 1 Williams would mean a landmark 20th major.
    Combined they've won 41 grand slams -- but all three faced questions on the eve of the Paris fortnight.
      Will Nadal end his recent slump? Can Djokovic finally beat him at Roland Garros if they meet in the quarterfinals? And how will an elbow injury impact Williams at her least productive grand slam?
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      The answers are sure to be revealed in the business end of the tournament but all three made it to the second round without much fuss.
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      Nadal was the first of the trio to start Tuesday, against French wildcard Quentin Halys.
      Halys -- who reached the U.S. Open boys' final last year and reached a high of No. 3 in the juniors -- said he feared taking on Nadal, but that it was a good fear.
      The free-swinging 18-year-old certainly didn't retreat and hit a flurry of flashy winners, but nowhere near enough. Nadal prevailed, and comfortably, 6-3 6-3 6-4 against a player ranked 289 places lower than him.
      Nadal admitted to playing with too many "nerves" in March, but the arrival of the European clay-court season was supposed to restore order.
      It didn't happen -- the Spaniard failed to win a clay title leading into Roland Garros for the first time since 2004 and the former world No. 1 is seeded a lowly sixth.
      But whether he really believed it or not, Nadal said his past two tournaments in Rome and Madrid were significantly better than his performances in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
      The harshest of critics -- or his fans of the worrying variety -- might remember a pair of mammoth backhand mishits or a second-serve forehand return that landed in the bottom of the net, but Nadal's performance Tuesday didn't raise any alarm bells.
      Nadal struck his forehand with authority and in the second set made only one unforced error, a statistic reminiscent of his best times on clay. Overall, he hit 26 winners and 13 unforced errors.
      "The first four games in the first set were tough," Nadal told reporters. "I made some mistakes, but then afterward I was able to hit my shots. I had some problems with my serve, but on the whole, it was okay.
      "From time to time the opponent served very well with a lot of power, but I managed to return quite well. He managed to hit shots that put me in a difficult situation at some times, but I was dominant on the whole during the match.
      "I managed to play some strokes down the line. So I handled the match very well."
      Assessing Nadal's level should be easier after his second-round encounter against experienced clay-court player Nicolas Almagro. Nadal owns a 12-1 record against his countryman, but the lone defeat was on clay last year in Barcelona.
      Djokovic confronted a seasoned veteran, Jarkko Nieminen, following Nadal's win and had a more difficult time.
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      The last time the 33-year-old Finn advanced past the third round at a major was in 2008 when he reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open.
      In the second set, though, Nieminen rolled back the years, taking a 4-1 lead. He even had a break point for 5-1. Later he served at 5-3, 30-0.
      By this stage, Nieminen had the fans out of their seats on Philippe Chatrier court with several stunning forehands down the line.
      But Djokovic fended off the break point, rallied and progressed in straight sets 6-2 7-5 6-2.
      He added to his already impressive fan base -- Djokovic boasts more than four million followers on Twitter -- when he spoke French in his post-match interview on court.
      "I'm very excited to speak French,'' Djokovic told the crowd. ''Hopefully my teacher will say that I was good.''
      Williams, whose sister Venus was beaten by compatriot Sloane Stephens on Monday, emulated Nadal and Djokovic by not lingering on Philippe Chatrier.
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      The American downed Andrea Hlavackova -- a doubles grand slam winner -- 6-2 6-3 three years after handing the Czech qualifier a double-bagel 6-0 6-0 loss at the U.S. Open.
      Williams' only real problem Tuesday? Her footwork abandoning her, a ball struck the 33-year-old on the shoulder as she chased a lob. Even the two-time French Open champion saw the humor in it -- she immediately produced a smile and had to compose herself before playing the next point.
      "I was, like, embarrassed, at the same time I thought it was really funny," Williams told reporters.
      Other men's seeds to advance on another chilly, breezy day in Paris included 2013 finalist David Ferrer -- with his 300th win on clay -- and U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic. In the women's draw, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and last year's semifinalist Andrea Petkovic also landed in the second round.
      But two players earmarked for stardom, Eugenie Bouchard and Grigor Dimitrov, continue to struggle.
      Hampered by injuries this season and looking out of sorts, Bouchard fell to young French hope Kristina Mladenovic 6-4 6-4. Mladenovic is used to pulling off upsets at home, ousting Li Na last year at Roland Garros.
      Mladenovic built a 5-0 lead over the Canadian in the second set but the 22-year-old saw her advantage dwindle to 5-4.
      Finally, however, a big serve relegated 2014 Wimbledon finalist Bouchard to an eighth loss in her last nine matches.
      "Honestly I don't know what to say," the 21-year-old, who reached last year's Paris semis, told reporters. "It's been kind of the same as how I have been feeling recently on the court. Just not like myself."
      Dimitrov, seeded 10th, crashed out in straight sets against 22-year-old American Jack Sock, who won the doubles title at Wimbledon last year with Canada's Vasek Pospisil.
      Even though Dimitrov also lost in the first round last year, his 2015 form overall counters an uplifting 2014 in which he reached a career-high ranking of eighth, making the semis at Wimbledon.